The Prophecy of Moses
We are beginning the book of Exodus this Shabbat, in which Moses is first introduced in the Torah. I think it is important to present the seventh of Maimonides’ principles of belief regarding the prophecy of Moses. Below is my translation of Maimonides, followed by a brief summary of the theme of the principle.
Moses is the father of all prophets, both of those who preceded him and those who succeeded him. All other prophets are inferior to Moses, as their communication from God was less direct. He was chosen by God from all people to know more of Him than any other human in the past or future. He achieved the highest possible level that a human can reach… No barriers stood between him and God, nothing clouded his vision, and no physical, emotional or intellectual obstructions restrained him. His imagination senses and emotions ceased to interpose, until he became a pure intellect who communicated with God without any intermediaries. There are four principal differences between the prophecy of Moses and that of other prophets:
- God communicated with all other prophets through an intermediary (e.g. an angel), but He communicated with Moses directly, as the verse states, “Mouth to mouth I speak to him…”
- Other prophets received their prophecy when they were asleep at night, or in a dream-state or trance during the day, when their physical senses were inactive. Moses received his prophecy standing in the Tabernacle during the daytime, fully conscious and aware. As the verses states, “If there are prophets among you, I, God, will make Myself known to him in a vision; in a dream I shall speak with him. Not so is my servant Moses…”
- When other prophets received prophecy… their strength failed, they trembled, and they experienced an overwhelming feeling of dread as though they were about to die. Moses did not experience any fear or trauma at all, as the verse states, “God would speak to Moses face to face, as a man would speak with his friend…” Just as one person speaks with another without fear or trauma, so Moses was able to speak with God.
- All other prophets were not able to receive prophecy at will, only when God granted them the prophecy. There were prophets who went for years without any prophecy; and there were some who waited for days, and even months, for a prophetic answer to a question. Sometimes there would be no answer at all. Some prophets prepared themselves for prophecy through joy and meditation, as Elisha did when he said, “Now call a musician for me…” When the musician played, the prophecy came to him. But there was no guarantee that any of the prophets would have prophecy, even with all their preparation. However, Moses, our teacher, was able to say at anytime, “Stand and I will hear what God will command you.”
Theme: Verification of prophecy is not a simple matter. Miracles do not reliably prove that prophecy is authentic, since what appears to be miraculous to a headhunter from Malaysia may be run-of-the-mill technology to an Australian prospector with an SUV and satellite phone. The Jewish people had doubts about Moses even after witnessing the Ten Plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea because they only had miracles to rely upon for verification. Not until they arrived at Mt. Sinai, and all of them heard God speaking to Moses and declaring “the people shall hear Me speak with you and they shall believe in you forever,” did they wholeheartedly accept that Moses was a prophet. Our belief in the prophecy of Moses is not based on miracles, predictions, faith or charisma, but rather on the personal experience and eyewitness testimony of the three million Jews who stood at Mt. Sinai.
All accounts of Divine revelation in the history of religion rely on claims that God communicated with an individual or a small, select group. Faith in the testimony of those individuals was the only basis for believing that God had spoken to them. Judaism is the only religion claiming revelation occurred in front of an entire people who personally witnessed God communicating with Moses. As no other prophet or claimant to revelation has or will ever duplicate this degree of revelation, verification and authority; no prophet who contradicts the Torah transmitted via Moses can be accepted by the Jewish people.
Subsequent to the Revelation at Sinai, the Torah’s criteria for verification of a prophet do include repeated predictions of future events or the performance of miracles. Although, as we discussed, miracles do not provide absolute proof of prophecy, Jewish law mandates their use, just as we accept the evidence of witnesses in court, even though we can never be absolutely certain that they are telling the truth. Nevertheless, a prophet accepted on the basis of these criteria cannot achieve the same degree of authority as Moses, whom God Himself identified as a prophet.